THE WALKING DEAD (Warner Brothers, 1936), directed by Michael Curtiz, is an interesting little item from the "horror" genre of the 1930s. Naturally starring Boris Karloff, but surprisingly produced and released by Warner Brothers instead of by Universal, where films of this sort were filmed and Karloff under studio contract. Being a Warners film, this also has the trademarks of its very own popular genre, the "gangster" story, yet, in this case, the use of modern-day setting with the blend gangsters with tales of the supernatural and science fiction.
The story opens with Judge Roger Shaw (Joseph King), in spite of threats from the mob, convicting a racketeer named Steven Martin (Kenneth Harlan) to a ten year prison sentence. Nolan (Ricardo Cortez), Martin's lawyer, sets out to do away with the judge by arranging one of his fellow racketeers, "Trigger" Smith (Joseph Sawyer), to employ John Ellman (Boris Karloff), an out-of-work musician out on parole for two weeks following his ten year prison sentence, to "spy" on Shaw, the judge who also had sent him up, on the grounds that Shaw's wife suspects her husband of being unfaithful, and all Ellman has to do is watch his house and take notes. One night while spying on Shaw by his property, the judge is murdered elsewhere by the gangsters who take the body and leave it in the back seat of Ellman's car. At the same time, this is witnessed by a young couple, Jimmy and Nancy (Warren Hull and Marguerite Churchill), who remain silent after they are personally threatened. After Ellman notices the couple driving away, he discovers the body in his car. The next scene shifts to the courtroom where Ellman pleads his innocence and that there are witnesses who can verify his story, but with the "help" of his attorney Nolan, he gets him convicted of first degree murder and to face execution. On the night he is to go to the electric chair, Jimmy and Nancy come forth to Doctor Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), their employer and scientist, who immediately telephones Nolan to contact the governor to stop the execution. Nolan purposely awaits until it is too late, and by then, the death sentence is carried out. Beaumont orders the autopsy to be stopped so that he may revive the body. After Ellman is brought back from the dead, he appears in a "zombie" state of mind, remembering nothing, but knowing precisely whom his enemies are, and through a supernatural force, goes after each one of those gangsters to learn why they had him framed, only to witness their destinies through accidental occurrences.
Featured in the supporting cast are Warner Brothers stock company of Barton MacLane as Loder; Henry O'Neill as District Attorney Werner; Addison Richards as the Prison Warden; Eddie Acuff as Mitchell; with Paul Harvey as Blackstone and Robert Strange as Merritt.
Boris Karloff is no stranger in playing a corpse resurrected from the dead. His role as The Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (Universal, 1931) or THE MUMMY (Universal, 1932), immediately come to mind, yet, in this production, he somehow resembles the monster, but in this case, doesn't go out on a murderous rampage in spite that he actually does have just cause to avenge his evil doers. Karloff's John Ellman is actually a gentle soul who, after being executed for a crime for which he is innocent, retains his gentleness even through his second life, yet, succeeds in bringing fright through his eyes to those who had done him wrong. He even finds peace and tranquility while roaming about the cemetery. Being a musician and pianist himself, he has a favorite musical piece, a somewhat quiet but moody composition he asks to be played as he walks his last mile to the execution chamber. As for the music, Ellman adds, "I like to think Heaven like that." After his "resurrection" by Doctor Beaumont, the story occasionally shifts to mystic overtones as Beaumont tries to learn from Ellman his experience in death. At one point, Ellman responds, "Leave the dead to their Maker. The Lord our God is a jealous God."
In many ways, THE WALKING DEAD is highly original in its premise and during its short 66 minutes, starts off a bit slowly with some intrusive "comedy relief" provided by Eddie Acuff, whose sure thing in making wagers which turns out to be a bad gamble, but soon builds itself to a fast and memorable conclusion. During its second half, the movie plays like a "film noir" mystery with its dark atmospheric background along with some very creepy stalking from the titled character. THE WALKING DEAD may not be Academy Award winning material, but will guarantee to win a new and appreciative audience whenever shown on Turner Classic Movies. (**)